The Big Three 

1 January 2003

An amazing feature of today’s TV industry is the number of channels for children. Turner’s Cartoon Network, Viacom’s Nickelodeon, Flextech’s Trouble, Disney, Fox Kids and two out of six national BBC channels all target youngsters.

John Worsley illustrating 'Wind in the Willows' for Anglia

There is, these days, a surfeit of animation on these networks. There is clearly nothing wrong with cartoons as a genre and they are highly popular with children, always repeatable and very cheap to buy in – if not to make. But not so many years ago the three national TV channels were much less reliant on cartoons.

Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is a great seasonal story and when Anglia Television screened its version across the ITV network in December 1970, the collaboration between the artist John Worsley and the narrator/producer Paul Honeyman launched a special kind of storytelling for children. This style had started in 1969 with Kenneth Graham’s “Wind in the Willows”. These unique and simple programmes provided mass enjoyment for millions at teatime. Worsley and Honeyman, with the added talents of Anglia’s Head of Music, Peter Fenn, not only gave a new element to ITV children’s viewing but also created a programme genre in itself – a new art of television storytelling.

Programming for children then was a specialist area. Not only did the BBC fund its own large children’s department but also ABC, ATV, Granada and Rediffusion did in the 60s, and Yorkshire, Thames and London Weekend in the seventies.

Production of children’s programmes was one area where the middle ranking ITV companies – Scottish, TWW, Southern, Anglia and Tyne Tees – were able to obtain a slice of the network cake. Harlech and TVS later joined this specialist group. Children’s teatime in the sixties – from 4.40 to 5.40 – was a special slot in the history of broadcasting in this country. From the early seventies, the programmes started at 4.10, filling a ninety-minute period.

The BBC had, for some years, led it’s children’s weekday schedules with Jackanory – a story telling programme for children – and BBC-2 pioneered material for much younger pre-school viewers with Playschool. In the fifties, the generic Watch with Mother strand had included BBC in-vision presentation announcers Vera Mackechnie and Patricia Driscoll on Picture Book.

Paul Honeyman

On ITV, the Worsley, Honeyman and Fenn trio provided a range and depth of story telling programmes, using pictures, strong narration and specially created music.

Paul Honeyman was a news presenter with Tyne Tees Television in Newcastle. He first met Worsley in 1966 and whilst supping pints they lamented the lack of good storytelling and illustration on television – proven stories with good narration and a complete match of words by still pictures. They knew it could be a successful format. It was three years later, when Honeyman was a staff producer at Anglia Television in Norwich, that a chance came to put their theories to the test.

They set about producing eighteen quarter-hour episodes of Kenneth Graham’s classic story “The Wind in the Willows”. During each programme, one picture is held on the screen for anything from a few seconds to full minute. The amount of time the camera spent panning a picture depended on its detail and some pictures, such as the Weasel’s Banquet, took Worsley up to three days to complete.

Born in Liverpool in 1919, Worsley spent six months producing the required 550 paintings needed to complete the programmes. He studied fine arts at Goldsmith’s in London, graduating in 1938. At the outbreak of the Second World War he became the youngest war artist, appointed by Kenneth Clark. He spent his time sketching and painting naval war scenes until he was captured by the Germans and became a prisoner of war. Behind barbed wire he had no choice other than to depict the life in the camps, but secretly created a dummy named “Albert” that aided a fellow prisoner to escape. He later recreated the dummy for a film telling of the dramatic escape, “Albert RN”, made in 1953 and directed by Lewis Gilbert.

“The Wind In The Willows” became Anglia’s first children’s serial, though they had networked “The Survival Game” earlier for children and made their own regional version of “The Romper Room” for the pre-school age viewer.

Their next project was “The Winter of Enchantment”, the first ever story by 21-year-old Welsh writer Victoria Walker. This magical tale of a winking teapot, an orange cat and a wicked enchanter of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter required a further 250 paintings from Worsley to complete a total of eight episodes.

Worsley's A Christmas Carol

It was with thoughts of the Christmas ITV schedule of December 1970 that Worsley, Honeyman and Fenn turned their hands to the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”. For this one-hour network special, Worsley provided 150 new paintings and the last painting had barely dried before the cameras rolled, finished within just one hour of the recording. “A Christmas Carol” was acclaimed by the TV critics and became one of the jewels of the Christmas TV season that year.

Their next project, “Treasure Island”, was more of an experiment. It was a complete jump away from slow-moving stories to one containing action and excitement. However, Worsley and Honeyman found that the stillness of the pictures did not detract from the pace of the Robert Louis Stephenson classic. Preparation of the 350 paintings needed for the six half-hour episodes began in December 1971, for screening in the autumn of 1972.

Mid-production in 1972 the studio director John Salway died. Although Worsley, Honeyman and Fenn were instrumental in developing these storytelling projects, it was Salway as director of every programme up to that point who had helped shape their style. Another highly experienced Anglia studio director, Ron Downing, took Salway’s place and completed the remaining episodes.

As a result of these Anglia network contributions, children’s television on ITV at that time drew in enormous audiences, and the network gladly commissioned two more projects in this genre. “Baldmoney, Sneezewort, Dodder and Cloudberry” was an adventure tale concerning the last gnomes in Britain, based on “The Little Grey Men” by ‘B.B.’ (natural history book illustrator Denys Watkins-Pitchford).

Tragedy struck midway through production of the last project, as Paul Honeyman died at the relatively young age of 41 during filming of “The Whisper of Glocken”, a fantasy story. The genre came to a temporary end at that point.

It was some years later that two further imaginative attempts at getting stories across to children appeared on British TV screens. One series ‘The Storyteller’ was commissioned by Channel 4 from Television South. Academy Award winner John Hurt played the eponymous storyteller. Written by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley) and produced by Duncan Kenworthy (Four Weddings and a Funeral), that TV series was filled with some of the most prominent names in British cinema and television today. The series was the work of Jim Henson Associates for TVS.

Over at the BBC there was an Anglo-Russian co-production in this style. Shakespeare’s most famous plays brought to life in 25 minute animated shorts, presented with younger viewers in mind. This included Twelfth Night, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. All filmed in studios in Russia and directed by Aida Ziablikova, they were generally screened on BBC-2 mid-evening, and repeated for schools and colleges.

In the multichannel age more outlets than ever are chasing the same viewers among the nation’s children. The audiences for some digital channels are relatively small. Some of their programmes today seem bland and formulaic, not to say cheap. While there are still some expensive series for children on terrestrial television, they are the exception rather than the rule.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Keith Lester 20 October 2012 at 1:25 pm

These story tellings brought back happy memories for me. i did learn the other day that the signiture music for The Little Grey men by BB was the same for the ITV series In loving memory. by the way I still have the audio from The Little Grey men and my children and grandchildren love listing to it. Thank you so much to such wonderful sories.

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